Friday, 26 September 2014

Théodore Géricault and “Le Radeau de la Méduse"

26 September 1791, the French painter Théodore Géricault was born in Rouen.
“Géricault allowed me tо see hіs Raft оf Medusa while he wаs still working оn it. Іt made sо tremendous аn impression оn me thаt when I came оut оf the studio I started running lіke а madman аnd did nоt stop till I reached my own room.” (Eugène Delacroix)

 Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault’s “Le Radeau de la Méduse", now at the Louvre

In July 1816, politicos and make-beliefs playing sailors caused one of the most infamous shipwrecks in naval history, when they ran the French 40 gun frigate “Medusa” 
aground off the coast of West Africa. En route to Senegal for the handover of the colony from the British after the Congress of Vienna, "Medusa” had 240 passengers in addition to her crew on board. When she struck a reef at high tide, her commander decided to evacuate, placing the crew in the long boats while most of the passengers rode on an improvised raft. During the attempt to reach the African coast 60 miles away, the raft was deliberately abandoned and what followed was one of the more uglier scenes in human co-existence - after 8 days lost at sea, of the 146 passengers on the raft only 15 survived. The post-war Bourbon government tried to cover up the scandal and capitaine de frégate, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, whose only qualification for the job was being an aristo and a staunch royalist, got away with three years in jail, even if he broke almost every single item of contemporary maritime conduct except perhaps holding church services on Sundays, weather permitting. However, the gruesome fate of the Raft of the Medusa would be known almost 200 years later only to naval historians if it weren’t for a young Romantic painter whose skill and power of imagination captured the scenes on the raft and climaxed the tale into a scene of Dantean proportions.

"La Méduse" sailing close hauled with brigs in the background

Staring for hours with an open mouth at Rubens, Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt in the Louvre is certainly a qualification for a Romantic mind and as an artist, young Géricault simply had to follow suit. Indifferent to the classicist proportions and subjects taught in art classes, his first major work, the “Charging Chasseur”, painted about the time when Napoleon invaded Russia, transposes the popular equestrian motif of soldiery making portentous gestures while seated on a rearing horse from Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassicistic gravitas into a fluid drama à la Rubens, bathed in the scenic illumination of sunlight breaking through the gun smoke of a battlefield, democratising the dramatis personae from the future emperor and his charger Nicole to one of the men who actually fought, a lieutenant of the régiment de chasseurs à cheval de la Garde impériale. Géricault’s paradigmatic change of almost everything official art of the First Empire under the aegis of its patriarch David represented was not exactly met with lasting success though. Disappointed, the young painter joined the army and had more than enough opportunities for first hand studies of the arms, man and beast and produced some remarkable results that became beacons for the Romantic movement in France. But his efficacious masterpiece was, without doubt, the "Le Radeau de la Méduse", “Raft of the Medusa”. 

Théodore Géricault: “Les trois crânes“ (1812 – 1814)

Enamoured with the black depths of the human soul, lunacy and death like a good Romantic should, Géricault drank in the according influence of Raphael and Michelangelo, ablated the more dramatic elements from his contemporaries Vernet and David, combined them with his own studies of madness, life and the demise of his fellow human beings. 
Géricault even reconstructed the raft and placed his friends on it to re-enact the macabre seascape, and, after several studies, he finished his Romantic masterpiece in 1819, showing the moment when the people on the raft saw a sail on the horizon that slowly disappeared, described to the artist by a survivor: "From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief". His royal Bourbon majesty Louis XVIII, whose government was ultimately responsible for the disaster off Senegal, saw the painting at the Paris Salon when it was first shown and remarked regally: "Monsieur, vous venez de faire un naufrage qui n'en est pas un pour vous", Monsieur Géricault, your shipwreck is certainly no disaster. Indeed, it became a milestone of 19th century art and Géricault, who died six years later from tuberculosis at the age of 32, had become one of the most important pioneers of art of his age.

Théodore Géricault “Portrait of a Kleptomaniac”
from his series "Les Monomanes" (Portraits of the Insane, 1822)

Monday, 22 September 2014

Bilbo Baggin’s eleventy-first birthday and Hobbit Day

22 September - since 1978, Bilbo Baggin’s eleventy-first birthday, the opening of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings“ is celebrated as “Hobbit Day“ all over the world.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton." (J.R.R. Tolkien)

The Chinese artist Jian Guo's approach on Bilbo’s eleventy-first in stained-glass style (2004)

Elves wielding magic swords, a race of supermen accomplishing superhuman feats and finally tripping over their own hubris like the fisherman’s wife from the fairy tale, embodied spirits and their world-shaking magics, demons, ghoulies and ghosties and whatnot, Tolkien’s first stories, written over a period of more than ten years and published 50 years later by his son as “Silmarillion” are caught up in the heroics of the old myths and legends of Northern Europe, authored in the shadow of the sorrow, the suffering, the glory and the pain of the Great War’s cataclysm and the following moral and social hangover of the interwar period. Whatever made Tolkien come up with a new kind of hero in the days when the next catastrophe was just around the corner, back then in 1937, he created something very different from the warlords of old, a being living a cosy life in a hole in the ground in a quasi-English countryside, a hobbit, his alter ego Bilbo Baggins.

Mr Bilbo Beutlin at home in Bag End, as imagined and illustrated by Tolkien himself

Goaded by the archaic spiritual leader, the Odin-esque Gandalf, Gandr-alfr, the elf with the magic wand, the smug and rather impossible hero outgrows himself and plays a pivotal role in a heroic quest, even though he is not the one who slays the dragon, leads his men into battle or gets crowned as “King under the Mountain”. But he returns home a wiser, more open-minded Hobbit who had traded respectability for becoming and oddball among his stuffy neighbours. Owning his share of a dragon’s hoard, of course, helped with being a bit on the eccentric side, but Bilbo Baggins and his charming role in a variation of the hero quest had become one of the most loveable characters in recent literature anyway. Reason enough to celebrate his fictional birthday, honouring J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of myths and his Hobbit heroes who are far more than they seem at first glance. Accordingly, the American Tolkien Society initiated a feast day that is well worth to be observed by all who love Tolkien’s works, those who should and all of us who have not yet lost our sense of wonder.

More of Jian Guo’s art can be admired on:

And more about “Hobbit Day” on:

Sunday, 21 September 2014

“Tell General Howard I know his heart. " - Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

21 September 1904, 110 years ago, Hinmatóowyalahtq’it, better known as Chief Joseph, leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce, the “red Napoleon” of the widely admired fighting retreat of his people towards the Canadian border, died in the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington.
“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.“ (Words attributed to Chief Joseph at the formal surrender of his band of “non-treaty” Nez Perce on October 5th, 1877, as noted by the Charles Erskine Scott Wood) 

Chief Joseph and his family, photograph taken c. 1880

The times they were a’changing, at least a bit. Even after Custer’s disaster on the Day of the Greasy Grass at the Little Bighorn Creek, public opinion was divided. While western newspapers revelled in gory and often made-up details about the end of Yellow Hair and his brave band and boiled up old stories from the early days of the pioneers, back in the East, far away from the western frontier, voices arose that questioned the whole approach on dealing with native Americans. And wangling the territory in Oregon and Idaho off the Nez Perce, the Pierced Noses, as French trappers had dubbed the Niimíipu, was just another story of deception, dishonourableness and coercion. Thus, in violation of the Treaty of Walla Walla originally dating back to 1855, that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on anyway, a group of Nez Perce and Palouse finally refused to be moved to a reservation in Idaho, and sooner or later the army was mobilised to make the “non-treaty Indians” see reason. In June 1877, 750 of them, 250 warriors and their families, gathering around Hinmaton-Yalatkit or Chief Joseph and his war leaders Looking Glass and White Bird, decided they had absolutely no reason to and tried to get away to Canada like Sitting Bull’s Lakota did in May of the same year. The Nez Perce War had begun and the “New York Times” wrote in an editorial: “On our part, the war was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime".

Nez Perce group known as "Chief Joseph's Band", Lapwai, Idaho, spring, 1877

For the next three months the Nez Perce trekked north over 1,500 miles across Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana with a brigade of U.S. cavalry under General Oliver O. Howard in hot pursuit. Looking Glass and White Bird fought a brilliant action after the other that earned almost universal respect. Sherman himself mentioned: "One of the most extraordinary Indian Wars of which there is any record. The Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise. They abstained from scalping: let captive women go free; did not commit indiscriminate murder of peaceful families, which is usual, and fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications." 40 miles south of the Canadian border, when they thought they had shaken off Howard’s brigade, exhausted with most of the provisions used up and in freezing cold, they were surprised by another brigade, Custer’s old 7th cavalry regiment among them, force marched to Montana by General Nelson Miles. After three days of fighting, with Looking Glass and White Bird fallen, Chief Joseph surrendered on October 5th.

Chief Joseph and his former enemy, Col. John Gibbon posing years later on one of the battlefields of the Nez Perce-trail

Chief Joseph had been called the “Red Napoleon” by the press, even though the actual fighting was planned and led by Looking Glass and White Bird, the war chiefs of the non-treaty Nez Perce. However, after October 5th, Chief Joseph was in the somewhat unfortunate role of the survivor of a daring but unsuccessful campaign. And the respect Sherman, then the U.S. Army’s supreme commander, gave to the Nez Perce was certainly limited. Actually, Chief Joseph’s condition of surrender was that he and his people were allowed to go back to Idaho, but General Miles agreement was overruled by Sherman who sent them to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to live in a swamp. 10 years later, the 268 survivors of the campaign of 1877 were finally allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. Chief Joseph, though, was exempted. He was separated from his people and brought to Colville Reservation, halfway between Seattle and Spokane, where he died, allegedly of a broken heart, in 1904.  

And more about Chief Joseph on: